A liberal president is in power. This president’s victory was historical, and he has had many accomplishments. Still, many of his supporters believe he didn’t live up to his expectations, that he was too complacent and conciliatory, and therefore there was a huge divide between his supporters about whom should replace him.
The election begins. There’s a far right candidate who is trying to mix extremist far right ideas with a kind of economic populist message, who is a blatant liar, who presents himself as an “outsider” against both conservatives and liberals, and no one takes him seriously. People laugh and say he has no chance. But he does better than expected, and benefiting from a very crowded field of candidates, wins enough votes to face a single opponent: someone who has been in the corridors of power for more than 30 years, and represents the political establishment, and who is known as a centrist. To everyone’s utter shock, the far right populist defeats the establishment centrist. He has made use of some undemocratic cracks in the electoral system, but he has won.
All this might sound familiar to you. It describes the 2016 presidential election when Donald Trump wins the US presidency. It also describes the 2005 presidential election when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wins the Iranian presidency.
Trump always reminded me of Ahmadinejad. I couldn’t help it. Both men are so bigoted, dishonest, hateful, and authoritarian. During the election I could see people scrambling to find someone to compare Trump with — Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ross Perot, Neil Farage, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and many others. But none of them make as much sense as Ahmadinejad. Donald Trump is the American Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The similarities run deeper.
One reason Ahmadinejad became president was that we demonized his rival too much. Hashemi Rafsanjani, unlike Hillary Clinton, was a moderate conservative back then (he’s a reformist now), and unlike Hillary Clinton, he probably was a little corrupt. So I guess the Iranians had more of a case. But from the very beginning, the liberals were adamant in demonizing both Clinton and Rafsanjani. There were lots and lots of lies about both of them. Rafsanjani was the demon of the refomist movement for too long. Its archnemesis. The main villain. He was accused of being behind the chain murders of intellectuals and political dissidents abroad, which turned out to be bullshit. Likewise, people kept calling Clinton a Republican, corrupt, racist, etc etc.
When the primary was going on, I was worried this might destroy Clinton. I was right. I was reassured by dear friends that this would be forgotten, but it wasn’t. People kept demonizing Clinton, even those who “unenthusiastically” were voting for her, and she lost. They brought her down.
Most reformists scrambled to convince people to vote for Rafsanjani. It was too late. You can’t demonize someone for 30 years and then ask people to vote for him in one week’s time.
So, I guess, this is lesson one for Americans: don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Don’t demonize your allies.
The second similarity is that Trump and Ahmadinejad weren’t really “outsiders”, the “underdogs”. Trump is a billionaire, and his supporters are privileged. Trump is the overt expression of everything Republicans were. Ahmadinejad was handpicked by the Supreme Leader and represented the worst face of conservatives. Ahmadinejad promised to fight corruption, and his was the most corrupt administration of Iranian history — and Trump is already the most corrupt president before setting foot in office.
So now, here we are. You have elected your Ahmadinejad. What now?
Well, firstly, I can’t tell you it will be OK.
It will get better. Iranians did learn many lessons from that fateful election of 2005. We looked beyond our despair and we became, as a nation, pragmatists. Our heroes used to be revolutionaries, now diplomats are our heroes. We made Rouhani happen. We made the nuclear deal happen. We went right to the very edge of destruction, but we pulled back. All and all, I’d say the ending was more sweet than bitter in its bittersweet.
But man, still, we’re not OK. We’re definitely still traumatized. You don’t forget absolute black dread engulfing your soul slowly but unflinchingly like being dipped slowly in tar. You don’t forget gazing straight into the eyes of despair. You don’t forget the feeling of the looming doom. You don’t forget that the knowledge that the very worst elements in your nation found a voice and that voice prevailed. You don’t forget the consequences of being ruled by the most incompetent person possible.
Rouhani once said that he has been busy picking up the debris of the ruins left to him by the previous administration. And that’s how it feels: we’re still picking up the debris, still binding the wounds, still improving the awful economy, and we are still not as free as we were in 2005. Rouhani has achieved more than any other president in our history and still it feels like he has achieved nothing, because he has been simply busy winding the clock back.
Some of us survived. Some of us didn’t. The memory still haunts those of us who did.
No, I’m not OK. I spent the best years of my youth in the worst years of my nation. OK is still a long, long way away.
But I am not writing this simply to preach gloom. I wrote this to my American friends mainly to say one thing: I get it. I get your pain. I’ve been through that. I understand it. You will fight back. And eventually you will win. Eventually you will set the course right.
We fought. We resisted. We did not perish. We forced an authoritarian government to bend to our will. You will too. Iranian extremists are dying out. So are American racists. The hate is having one last great finale around the world, but we will hand its ass to it.
This is not Trump’s America. Not only because he lost the popular vote or because 46% of people didn’t vote at all. But also because all progressive measures and policies are supported by a majority of Americans, including a majority who are welcoming to immigrants.
I’m not trying to give you false hope. But just as I know this won’t be OK, I know this is white supremacy’s last primal scream before it expires, just as Iranian extremists now fail to beat us with our hands tied. We were beating Islamism even when Ahmadinejad became president. You’re still beating white supremacy. Progress is real.
You have lost a battle, not the war. And as Churchill said, this is the end of the beginning.
Stay strong, my American friends.
Image credits: Donald J. Trump in October 2016, by Gage Skidmore, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, via Flickr, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian president, at Columbia University, by Daniella Zalcman, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, via Flickr.